Justice Goes After Copyright Infringers

Gretchen Gallen
WASHINGTON, D.C. – If Attorney General John Ashcroft has his way any time soon, people who infringe on copyrights via the Internet might end up owing the federal government tens of thousands of dollars and jail time for that download of the latest Outkast single.

A bill that could shift the power to penalize file-sharers into the hands of the Department of Justice is scheduled for a vote from the U.S. Senate as early as next week.

Calling it the Protecting Intellectual Rights Against Theft and Expropriation Act of 2004 (Pirate Act), the bill amends federal copyright law to authorize the Attorney General to file civil action against any person who engages in copyright infringement.

The Pirate Act amends the No Electronic Theft Act of 1997, giving the DOJ less burden of proof when it comes to prosecuting infringers, which in turn would make it easier to build a case against some of the more active providers of illegal downloads, according to lawmakers in support of the bill.

Sponsor Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont and co-sponsor by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah are hoping the bill will deter file-sharers for generations to come, but only after federal prosecutors have used tens of thousands of peer-to-peer users as example.

"I doubt that any nongovernmental organization has the resources or moral authority to pursue such a campaign," Hatch said.

In some cases, file-sharers caught in the floodlights of federal prosecutions could face fines as steep as $100,000 and a possible jail sentence.

The Pirate Act has gained massive support from the Recording Industry Association of America as well as representatives for the Motion Picture Association of America, who would benefit from the law insofar as transferring the financial burden from their shoulders onto the federal government.

Critics of the bill, which include executives from some of the leading file-sharing companies like Kazaa and trade group P2P United, are charging that the Pirate Act has managed to move through the legislative process with unusual stealth after only just being introduced in March 25 of this year.

Kazaa and others also contend that the entertainment industry has greased palms in Washington to get the bill on the fast-track, and that ultimately it will be the tax payer who will end up bearing the cost for the landslide of federal prosecutions to come.

"For too long, federal prosecutors have been hindered in their pursuit of pirates, by the fact that they were limited to bringing criminal charges with high burdens of proof," Leahy said in an opening statement before the Senate. "In the world of copyright, a criminal charge is unusually difficult to prove because the defendant must have known that his conduct was illegal and he must have willfully engaged in the conduct anyway.

"For this reason prosecutors can rarely justify bringing criminal charges, and copyright owners have been left alone to fend for themselves, defending their rights only where they can afford to do so. In a world in which a computer and an Internet connection are all the tools you need to engage in massive piracy, this is an intolerable predicament."

The Pirate Act also directs the Attorney General's office to develop a training program for Justice personnel to ensure that the law is properly implemented. The Justice would also be able to make use of some of the conditions of the U.S. Patriot Act, which includes the use of wiretaps to collect information on users.

Additionally, the RIAA and other industry trade organizations would be permitted to sue the same file-sharers the federal government already has.